Dairy Farming in the 21st Century

April 25, 2016

On a recent tour of Spotted Cow Acres, LLC., located in Owen, Wisconsin, Jared and Justin Eloranta, brothers who own the farm, spent the morning demonstrating their new high-tech barn and robotic milking machines. With huge ceiling fans whirling over hundreds of cows, humans seemed totally out of place. A decades-long trend is that jobs in manufacturing and other industries have been replaced with robotic equipment and other automation; the trend toward automation on farms is more recent, and is in many ways redefining what it means to work on a farm. After their demonstration, the Eloranta brothers explained why it made sense for their 280-head dairy farm to make a big investment in a new state-of-the-art farm technology.

America’s Dairyland

Wisconsin has a well-earned reputation as America’s Dairyland, being home to more than 10,000 dairy farms – more than any other state – and 1.27 million cows.1 The dairy industry itself contributes $43.5 billion annually to Wisconsin’s economy.2 By comparison, citrus contributes $9 billion annually to Florida’s economy and potatoes, $6.7 billion annually to Idaho’s economy.3, 4 The average number of dairy cows on a farm in Wisconsin is 124.5 However dairy farms vary greatly in size. As figure 1 indicates, when Wisconsin dairy farms are analyzed by herd size, small farms (those with herds of 99 cows or less) comprise 8,277 farms or 75 percent of the total farms; mid-size farms (those with herds between 100 and 499 cows) comprise 2,399 farms or 22 percent of the total farms; and large farms (those with herds of 500 cows or more) comprise 387 farms or 3 percent of the total farms.6, 7

Figure 1

Mid-sized Dairies are the Sweet Spot for Robotic Milkers

Spotted Cow Acres 280-herd is considered a mid-sized dairy. Discussions with dairy industry experts indicate that mid-sized dairy farms represent the entry point, size-wise, to realize the economies of scale to justify investment in robotic milkers; smaller farms cannot spread the costs over enough cows. Larger scale technologies, such as rotating milking parlors,8 are available to bigger dairies and offer advantages beyond those of robotic milkers.

Transponders Control Milking Frequency

Despite grocery store milk containers depicting cattle lazily grazing in pastures sporting cowbells, today’s cow is more likely to be wearing a transponder around its neck. Whereas the old cowbell just let the farmer know a cow’s rough location, transponders convey individualized data on each cow. The transponder and the milking robot work together to enable the cow to be milked at will, day or night. Cows can be milked approximately four to six times per day, but the transponder controls the gates to the milking robot, which will not open if the last milking is too recent.

Robotic Milkers

Robotic milkers resemble car washes for cows, except the action occurs below rather than above. Separating each milker is a small control room situated about two feet below grade where the farmer can look out and observe each robot moving methodically about its herd.

The robot uses lasers to scan each cow’s udder and attaches itself without any human involvement. In addition to milking, it tracks an array of data about each cow including: individual milk yields; fat/protein/hormone and enzyme levels in each cow’s milk; whether the cow is ready to reproduce; and it automatically calculates the right feed levels for each cow. Further, it analyzes daily milk samples to ensure that the cow is in good health – long before any external signs of illness would be visible. This data is captured by software and is accessible in real time on smart phones.


Changing Roles

Robotic milkers have dispensed with the old rule of thumb that every 50 dairy cows required one human worker. Although the robots cost as much as $250,000, farmers with large enough herds look upon them as essentially prepaid labor with no overtime, sick days, or holidays. Farmers who installed the robots have commented they spend less time as a people manager and more time as a herd manager – looking after their cows. As robots take over more of the monotonous farm labor tasks, and barns get equipped with high technology, younger workers are taking renewed interest in new era farming careers.9


1 Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, “Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics,” available online.

2 Ibid.

3 Florida Citrus Mutual, “Citrus Statistics,” available online.

4 Taylor, Garth, Paul Patterson, Joe Guenthner, and Lindy Widner, 2007, “Contribution of the Potato Industry to Idaho's Economy,” © University of Idaho, July (revised October 2007), available online.

5 Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, “2016 Dairy Data: A Review of Wisconsin's Dairy Industry,” available online.

6 Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, “Wisconsin Dairy Farms by Herd Size, 2012,” available online.

7 Ibid. Note that the total number of farms in Wisconsin in 2012 was 11,063, while by 2015 that number had declined to 10,290. According to industry experts, the decline was due to industry consolidation. Further, 2012 was the most recently available breakdown of dairy farms by herd size.

8 Rotating milking parlours bear some resemblance to merry-go-rounds. The cows walk onto a circular raised platform, allowing the farmer and/or robots to attach the milking machine from below. The platform rotates very slowly, and the cows eat while they are being milked, after which the machine is detached and the cows exit the platform. “What is a Rotary Milking Parlour?”available online.

9 The 2012 Census found a small increase in the number of farmers in the cohort between the ages of 25 and 34. While this modest increase is not substantial enough to offset the baby boom farmers reaching retirement age, it is a break in a former trend that does suggest more young people are seeking agriculture as a first career option. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition blog, 2014, “2012 Census Drilldown: Beginning Farmers and Ranchers,” May 28, available online. See also, Jeff Wuorio, 2015, “A younger generation of farmers gets in the dirt,” Deseret News National blog, September 1, available online. For more information on younger tech-savvy workers taking a renewed interest in farming careers, see Jeannine Otto, 2014, “Young farmers deal with old challenges in new ways,” AGRINEWS blog, September 1, available online. See also, Marie Lawrence, 2012, “Big Bots in Little Agriculture,” June 1, Slate blog, available online.

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.


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